Thursday, 21 April 2011

Dr Binayak Sen, Perhaps It's Time For 'Goodbye India'?

Dear Baba,

Everything pales to the warm feeling of returning home. If leaving home means the search for wisdom, then returning home means wisdom soaked under the skin. One hundred and fourteen days spent behind some crude bars, with a stone slab for a bed, a window perhaps to let the eyes travel far, watery or burnt rice as nourishment for the body, and those minutes and hours and days that crawl and whoosh by alternatively -- you surely need rest back at home. Your eyes looked tired in a video made almost immediately after you had reached home in Raipur. 

But Baba, as I like to address you with as much love and respect as the civil society does, I take the liberty of sounding like I have been hallucinating. Of course, with a country like ours where one feels empowered on receiving a pizza in less than 30 minutes, but feels impotent on having the ambulance arrive not before 60 minutes, words like 'freedom' and 'equality' and many other simple big words provide that hallucinating experience. But, I will let myself 'hallucinate' aloud: I think it is time you left this country where you were born, educated, worked, served, idolised, harassed, implicated, jailed, and finally freed, which gave the people of this country an illusion of a just judiciary. 

I know how you would cringe when people would shower you with laudatory words of praise. I know how you would just listen quietly to anyone who had much to say. You listened, absorbing every word, as though it were a patient's faint heart beat or deep sigh of pain. And when you spoke, not a pin would be dropped around. But I guess, that's the problem with idolising someone -- we listen, feel charged like that moment of orgasm, and then walk home enlightened but confused about action.

Yet, there will be many who know exactly what you are talking about. Doctors, for example. The website of the Medical Council of India lists 314 recognised colleges which offer undergraduate MBBS courses, and many more which offer PG courses. Your specialisation of Paediatrics alone is taught in 214 colleges. Now, let's assume that each college has an intake of 50 students, which is the number of seats available at the prestigious AIIMS in Delhi. In a year, we then ought to have a minimum of 15,700 MBBS doctors graduating each year. Even if we have half the number of confident Paediatricians graduating each year, why do we still see that of those infants who were lucky to be born alive, 63 of every 1,000 of them die before they cut their first birthday cake? If doctors remember what they had studied, how come do they forget the Hippocratic Oath ever so often -- when they insist that forms be filled before an accident patient is looked upon; when they write references faster than writing their signatures, when they know best that just one bottle of IV drip would provide much-needed instant relief to the dehydrated patient; when they confuse their diagnosis upon assessing the lifestyle and thus the class of the patient; when they give 2 Crocin pills and take Rs 150 from a farmer who can at best offer 2 handfuls of rice?

Despite this grim picture, I had heard of many doctors who chose to go to places where a majority of India resides. Yet when I met you, and got to know you better through your daughter with whom I share some enjoyable girly moments, my one deep regret in life began to resurface: why didn't I study few more extra hours to get into a medical school? Why did I instead write songs and poetry and stories? Why didn't I learn more about the difference between xylem and phloem to understand how chlorophyll would makes its passageway through them? (You see, even if I wanted to be a doctor for human beings, I had to learn about plants first. Never mind.) Why didn't I try to understand the intricacies of the carbon and nitrogen cycles? But I sure did enjoy poring over the diagrams, and would be waiting for the day when we would be shown the diagrams come to life and see the various mechanisms of our bodies play out before my eyes.

Most of my friends at that time drank Horlicks every morning to be able to cram up organic chemistry formulae. I hated Horlicks; a bottle of Bournvita was put on my table instead. I preferred to cut out the wrapper and make snow flakes out of them. I'd spend more time at the Zoology lab watching the different bottles filled with formaldehyde, which had many dead foetuses (would they have been cute babies with black eyes and curly hair?), during their different stages of growth. I drew each of them, while my friends listened to long lectures. I waited desperately for the experiment when we would have had to dissect a cockroach, goroi fish, and a frog's thigh muscle. I had made deals with some classmates: they would complete my magnetism and electricity experiments for Physics, while I would do all the dissection for them, draw all of their diagrams and leave the miniscule work of writing to them. I think I could have been a doctor.

My family in Assam is full of doctors. Almost all of them had cleared their exams with nice numbers before they began to practise medicine in a hospital or in private clinics. Almost all of them would bring their own loved ones to places like Delhi and Mumbai for treatment -- they never trusted themselves or their colleagues. Every news of a relative's death would be followed by either of these statements -- the doctor couldn't diagnose on time; the doctor diagnosed the myocardial infarction (heart attack) as acidity; the doctor wouldn't come late at night because it was raining. And this isn't because the relatives live in villages -- they have good jobs with the government, they own at least one car, they have palatial houses, they eat meat and fish daily, they throw big weddings for their children. The Guwahati Medical College spews out 156 doctors each year; 170 doctors graduate from the Dibrugarh Medical college. Yet, doctors within the family were sceptical of the idea of my father visiting Assam, after he had had a bypass surgery, a failed kidney and pulmonary oedema (water in the lungs) -- they knew that no doctor would be able to touch him if there was an emergency. But I wonder, is it really possible to make palatial homes by just treating patients with Crocin? So what did they really study in the medical school?

Okay I understand the need to make decent money, to live up to the dream of a glowing India. And I do understand that it is much easier to work with bottles of blue Sterillium around, to sanitise the hands before entering a patient's cabin, before wearing the gloves, after wearing the gloves, after shaking hands with an educated and English-speaking patient, after taking the gloves off, and after leaving the patient's cabin. But what about the 'type' of people you worked among, Baba? They may have at best offered you just a 'lota' of water to wash your hands after you had wiped the phlegm and blood off the nose of a little crying thin doll. But you know, every now and then, when I read those philosophical musings that one ought not to regret anything in life, I make this plan in my head: suppose I zero on this little village (or even a slum settlement in many of our shining cities). Suppose I am able to convince 12 doctors working in some Sterillium-smelling and sea-viewing hospital to bring for themselves a lot of genuine blessings. Suppose I am able to get a lot of doctors to give me the free sample medicines that they get from MRs. Suppose I am able to get each of the doctors to sacrifice their one month's salary and comfortable life in the city. Suppose I am able to get a room free in that village, from among the relatively richest person there, for the doctor to stay. Suppose that doctor is given his food on time, while he meets patients, talk to the poor, offers them advice of ways to have a healthy diet within their limited grains and vegetables and the occasional egg. Suppose I am able to continue this every month, year on year, with the same set of doctors or new ones. I am not asking anyone to sacrifice any lifestyle for all their lives. I am not asking any doctor to offer his daughter's bed to check an emergency patient, like you have done so many times. All I am asking for is a chain reaction for health. Is this possible?

But I think it would be best that you not spend more time thinking of solutions or possibilities of my mad ideas. It is best that you leave for a foreign university, and spend your days talking about malnutrition in India, and spend the evenings discussing it again during gatherings meant to honour your release from the jail. I guess you should have done that years ago, like most doctors have done. Because if you continue to stay here, we the young and the not-so-young will continue to idolise you, talk about your work, but would never venture to walk your path. Other than campaigning for your release and then shouting slogans further idolising you (which embarrasses you no end, for you are just a doctor doing your work), it is time you expect something more from the middle class Indians. 

Very soon, you will be invited to talk at different forums about your stint in the jail. You will be asked to comment on Anna Hazare's fasting with a fixed smile which gave the media enough fodder to be sandwiched between the World Cup and the IPL. (Oh, while you were behind bars because the patriot in you couldn't bear to see violence, India won the World Cup, and we celebrated on the streets by scaring the Sri Lankan team and their families on the bus while they were leaving the stadium. We went a step further in being patriotic: we shouted slogans against Pakistan, and we yelled out "Leave India" to any 'gora' that we saw on the streets. The cops were out to ensure that we would have a peaceful frenzy to celebrate, and the next day, the site for most revolutions - Facebook - was filled with colourful abuses against the teams that India defeated. The 'patriotism' was reaching unbelievable heights: people spent Rs 25,000 for a ticket that was originally priced at Rs 10,000.) You will be asked to comment on a book written about you. You will be asked to comment on Jaitapur, Dantewada, Kashmir, Forest Rights Act and much more. But I know you will patiently reply to each of them, choosing your precise words of expression. But that's about it. Your words would stir some, but not the students from the medical colleges across the country who have been agitating against being posted in rural areas. They prefer to treat lifestyle diseases like diabetes and hypertension, rather than really prevent illnesses in the first place. 

We are all happy that the Supreme Court has released you on bail. The activist brigade is singing and dancing, before hitting the road with slogans that nobody wants to read or hear, for the next big 'mudda', or writing long petitions to be sent to the President hiding behind her Kaanjivaram veil. But it would be practical that you stay safe. It would be practical that the country decides to wake up to the grim realities you have been talking about. If your work was so good, why are we so lazy to be inspired to really work like you have done? Haven't we all read enough of human rights abuse reports and newspaper articles and theories about 'paradigm shifts'? When will we stop reading and start implementing on what have we read? Hence I say, because I love you, and idolise you, and want you to feel content that hordes will walk up to the weak of our society -- you need to pack your bags for a long holiday. Unless you stop working, nobody else will. 

Would I have been a good doctor? I don't know. But today, where I stand on my life's quicksand, I do know this: when I see your eyes well up each time you talk about violence, I know that those tears are juices of strength to keep you walking where you walk. And I am glad that my tear glands are functional too, each time I sit down to write about yet another smiling bony tribal kid. Three days ago, I heard children from the Bareli tribe in Madhya Pradesh singing out songs of revolution in their language. And then, to honour my presence in their soul-rich and belly-poor lives, the sung to me Joan Baez's "We shall overcome." No, not the Hindi "Hum honge kaamyaab", but the English "We shall overkummmm". Through the hot tears, I was fortified with hope again, just when I was swinging between losing my head and losing all hope. But I have wiped my tears for now, and hence I say this -- unless you make your visits to the embassies, nobody will make their visits to real India.

With love, and in anticipation of your ever-warm hug,
Just another fan -- Priyanka

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Traffic Jam That Was Not

After walking hundreds of kilometres, an Adivasi rally arrives in Mumbai. PRIYANKA BORPUJARI tells their story — of a historic victory and a brush with urban callousness

ON 14 MARCH, about 20,000 Adivasi women and men from all over Maharashtra walked hundreds of kilometres, across the state, to Shivaji Park in Mumbai. The next day, they began their march to Azad Maidan. They had been walking for two weeks. And now, finally, they were in the capital: 20,000 tired but determined protestors of the Jungle Haq Sangharsh Yatra.

For urban spectators, the rally would have been remarkable for its size and spectacle; but mostly all they saw was jammed traffic and delayed transit. Few seemed to care what the march was really about. Even a prominent news daily saw it fit to report on the traffic jams and inconvenience to urban Mumbaikars without looking wider or deeper. The truth is, this massive rally of Adivasi people, far from being beaten into dispersal, as is often the case with protest marches, was escorted by non-aggressive police. And surprisingly, in the searing 38-degree heat, several MLAs in immaculate white accompanied the marathon walkers into Azad Maidan. Was this a rare moment of people’s power peacefully gaining a firm handle on a government ready to run for cover?

It was the Maharashtra government’s neglectful and callous attitude towards the implementation of the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which had seeded this strong and spectacular protest. The Act had promised to rectify decades of injustice, and validate the right of Adivasis over the land and forest that they have lived in for generations. However, negligible justice has been delivered since. Of the 2.88 lakh forest land claims that had reached the Sub-Divisional Level Committees, 1.7 lakh had been rejected. Further, the average area of approved claims (0.63 hectares) was not even 50 per cent of an economic holding. Many of the “approved” cases bear closer examination; an Adivasi may be in possession of 3 acres of land, have half an acre ‘approved’ and still face eviction from the remaining 2.5 acres.

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had apparently earlier requested that the rally should not enter Mumbai. This may have pleased harassed urbanites complaining “protests must happen without inconveniencing the common man”; it seemed no matter that the protesting common man — the Adivasis, rooted to their land for generations — had been indefinitely deprived of their very right to life and livelihood.

However, the Chief Minister had offered to meet the protestors twice and subsequently the Yatra’s representatives were invited to a long meeting with the Chief Minister, Deputy CM, six other ministers and several senior bureaucrats. This high-level political engagement was finally recognition of the determination of the Adivasi protest. The Chief Minister and Chief Secretary agreed that there was injustice in the large-scale rejection of the Adivasi claims to their land and that a review process was required. The Chief Secretary pointed out that there was no procedure for reviewing rejected claims. The political contingent tried to persuade the rally to withdraw their protest, vowing action would be taken. But this proved too vague a promise. The rally would continue in its journey for justice. In Thane on 11 March, the Minister of State for Tribal Development Rajendra Gavit arrived to address the tribals — and also persuaded them to return home. But no one was ready to stop walking. Not until they had been heard. Ulka Mahajan of Sarvahara Jan Andolan, a participating group, said, “Tribals have been on these so-called forest lands for more than a century, long before the government came into existence. But still the lands are not in their name. Sixty years after independence, this is historical injustice. The Act was brought about to undo this injustice. However, it is not being implemented due to several interests involved. Now we hope that there will be the political will to right the wrongs.”

IT WAS in this mood of mountain-moving focus that the rally arrived in Mumbai to assert ‘Adivasi asmita’ or tribal identity in a gargantuan system that barely accounted for their existence. Although jaded and jolted by the city, the tribals persistently coloured Mumbai’s streets with their caps and flags. Led by women holding a banner, the Bhute dancers from Nandurbar and Mawchi tribesmen followed. In the spectacle of painted bodies, turbans with feathers, waists decorated with strings of dried gourd and ghungroos, a sea of banners from participating organisations surged across the urban landscape; slogans emanated from a loudspeaker on a truck. This procession was followed by about 10,000 women rallyists.

Disciplined, the walkers did not veer off their files. When people attempted to cross the road, the women chased them down. “We have been walking for 14 days to talk to the government. Why can’t you respect our wishes?” yelled Raju. However, the walkers did not disconnect from their innate integrity; they waited for a funeral procession to pass. “We are walking for our lives; they are walking for the dead. We cannot be disrespectful,” said Kalawati from Dahanu. Raju stopped the men he was leading to allow school children to cross the road. Many watched from their balconies — a tide of people, some barefoot, braving the burning asphalt of the JJ Flyover.

Sunni from Nandurbar, whose land claim had been rejected, asked with bemusement, “Why do they say you get everything in Mumbai?” Sunni’s sojourn in Mumbai convinced her that it was a place without clean water. The drinking water tanker in Shivaji Park had emanated a strong stench. With the crush for bathrooms, very few could bathe before heading out for the rally. “Walking from our villages, we passed small rivers where we bathed. Along the way villagers offered us water to drink and freshen ourselves. But there is no water facility in Mumbai,” said Anitabai, an old woman wearing thick spectacles.

But it was not just the lack of common resources or generosity in the city that struck the Adivasi protestors. It was the general lack of human engagement. Humabai Gavit, who had been leading the rally, wiped her face as photographers obstructed the walkers near CST station, at 2 pm. One journalist asked rather inanely, “Isn’t it tough to walk in this hot sun?” Humabai smiled, “We work in the sun everyday. We don’t enjoy it, but how will we survive otherwise?” She was too dignified to jeer at the journalist. Is that all they could question, the discomfort of the sun?

This massive yet peaceful assertion of people’s power had effectively pitched a marginalised issue into high-level political discourse; it had urged the police and security infrastructure to allow a large and sensitive protest like this march across a metropolis; an entire community valiantly fights an uneven battle… and the question is about the inconvenience of walking in the sun?

The rally being allowed to wend its way across Mumbai was in itself a rare concession. The Congress-NCP government still carries the acrid hangover of the 1994 Gowari stampede: 120 people from the Gowari tribe had lost their lives while walking towards the Nagpur Vidhan Bhavan, which led to the collapse of the Sharad Pawar-led Congress government. Yet, this rally was not only allowed, but dignified with political engagement. The Opposition moved an adjournment motion in the Budget Session of the Assembly on the morning of 15 March. At 3 pm, a delegation of 50 Adivasis were invited to meet the Chief Minister. After hectic negotiations, it was agreed the Tribal Welfare Ministry would draft exhaustive guidelines to ensure that the rejection of claims was not speedy, furtive or without due process. More importantly, through these guidelines, rejected claims can now be reviewed several times — a historic first, anywhere in India.

By the evening, the resolute journeyers — exhausted but victorious — began to make their way home, back into the green forests. Mumbai looked on from cars and balconies; untouched, but perhaps not unmoved.